Ressentiment or Catharsis?

Plato had a name for popular culture. He called it “theatrocracy,” which is to say rule by the theater (Laws 3.701). Or, more exactly, it is to say rule of the theater by the theatron, this being the ancient name of the seating area for spectators. We have a theatrocracy whenever the performance is governed by the applause, or the laughs, or (hitting closer to home) the student evaluations.

And Plato said theatrocracy was a very bad sort of rule because it was an inversion of authority. In a world that was properly ordered, the stage dictated to the theatron, not the theatron to the stage.

Inversion of authority is a large theme in Plato, for he saw this as the radical evil at the root of most bad things. What is more, he saw it as a contagious evil that spread like an insidious dry rot that could addle and decay all authority.

When a theater was properly ordered, wisdom flowed to the theatron, not from it. Wisdom originated with the gods, and then passed through the wise men, or Guardians, into the laws of the city. From there it passed into the approved playwrights, plays and players, until it was at last received in the theatron, by the men most in want of wisdom.

Their want of wisdom was why they were in the theatron.

And when these men in want of wisdom received wisdom, Plato tells us they ought to have felt “fear.” This is natural, since fear is nothing more than consciousness of inferiority. Fear is the sudden and appalling awareness that I am very small. This sense of smallness is the essence of the fear that comes over a child, alone in her room late at night. It is the essence of the fear that comes over a man who hears a strange sound in what he suddenly notices is a very deep wood. It is the essence of the fear any one of us feels in the presence of a man who is in some way greater than ourselves.

Plato believed that it was good for a man to feel fear, because a man who is aware of his smallness is standing in the light and seeing things as they truly are.

The main purpose of the ancient Greek theater was to keep men in the light and correct their natural susceptibility to egoistic delusions of grandeur. Every man is by nature an egoist. Like that child, he is pleased to imagine that the world revolves around him (until he is alone in the dark). Like that man in the wood, he is pleased to imagine that he is under protection of a special providence (until he hears that snap of a branch). Like any one of us, he is pleased to imagine that he himself is great (until he is humbled by greatness).

Man is an egoist until his egoism is exploded. Then he feels fear.

Greek theater was meant purge a man of egoism, and prevent such foolish delusions of grandeur. It did this by instilling the “tragic sense of life.” And this tragic sense of life begins with the sudden and appalling awareness that I am very small.

“The consciousness that everything passes away, and that we ourselves pass away, and that everything that is ours and environs us passes away, fills us with anguish, and this anguish itself reveals to us the consolation of that which does not pass away, of the eternal, of the beautiful” (Miguel de Unamundo, The Tragic Sense of Life [1910]).

* * * * * 

Fear is not an agreeable sensation, either in itself or in what it tells us about our smallness, our finitude, our inferiority. This is why we naturally hate what we fear, and why quivering fears are so often followed (once it is safe) by lusty jeers.

This shameless jeering at nobility is the dark heart of theatrocracy.

Confronted with the representation of superior wisdom on the stage, the men in the theatron feel inferior. They feel fear and they feel shame. So their egos rebel against this humiliation with ressentiment. Nietzsche tells us that ressentiment is the special hatred that little men feel for true nobility, and Plato says that ressentiment is what we hear in the vulgar jeers of the theatron (The Antichrist [1895]).

Enflamed by ressentiment, the theatron is possessed by a “conceit of omniscience.” The men of little wisdom grow bold and presume to pass judgment on the play by which they should have been judged. Their “absence of fear begets shamelessness,” and this shamelessness (or pride) in the theatron is the theatrocratic inversion of authority.

“For what is this shamelessness . . . but the insolent refusal to regard the opinion of the better by reason of an over-daring sort of liberty.”

In Plato’s day, it was a shameless mob that shambled into the theatron to “give judgment by noisy cries.” Long past were the days when “the directors of pubic instruction insisted the spectators should listen in silence to the end,” when the entire audience was “kept quiet by a hint from the stick.” Authority had been inverted and the Untermenschen now sat in judgment, their jeering (and cheering) verdicts delivered in “hisses,” “shouts,” and “clapping of hands.”

* * * * *

Pok-O-Moonshine is a low mountain in the northeast corner of New York’s Adirondacks. Although far from lofty, it is, nonetheless, a striking mountain owing to the rugged jumble of cliffs and slabs that scar its eastern slope and give the mountain its name. Its present form is said to be a corruption of the Algonquin Pohquis Moosie or place of broken rocks.

This place of broken rocks has been a resort of rock climbers since the 1950s, partly owing to the difficulty and variety of routes, and partly owing to the short walk from the road. I was myself one of those climbers in the late 1970’s, most especially on the great four-hundred-foot slab at the southern end of Pok-O’s craggy face.

Midway up this slab there is a ledge, which I for one was grateful to reach, for the climb up to it was near the limit of my modest ability, and that slab had very few cracks into which a climber could insert “protection.” When cracks are scarce, “run-outs” are long. A “run-out” is the length of rope between the lead climber and his nearest protection, double this length being his prospective drop in the event of a slip (provided the protection holds).

So when cracks are scarce, run-outs are long and the lead climber feels fear.

According to Trudy Healy’s Climber’s Guide to the Adirondacks (1971), this resting place is called Catharsis Ledge, a fitting and altogether suitable name that it has taken me years to understand.

In the late 1970s, the ancient Greeks were to me nothing but names. Like many young men of that time, my philosophy was a mix of Alan Watts, Carlos Castaneda and the Lake Poets, and—again like many young men of that time—this mix served mostly to comfort and sustain my ardent egoism. Thus it was that I misunderstood “catharsis” to mean an “oceanic feeling” of oneness with the world, and the ledge so named as a place where a man might well assume the lotus position.

Which those long run-outs had, I assure you, left me far too shaken to do.

And as I now see it, that being too shaken to adopt the lotus position and swell with oceanic feeling was the catharsis. Fear is the instrument of catharsis because it humbles a man and, when taken aright, purges him of pride. After hearing the Ancient Mariner’s tale, the Wedding Guest tells us: “a sadder and a wiser man I rose the morrow morn.” If I had put my affection for the Lake Poets to better use, I should in those days have said: “a sadder and a wiser man I heaved my quaking frame onto the safety of Catharsis Ledge.”

In the Poetics, Aristotle tells us that the purpose of tragedy is to affect catharsis through “pity and fear,” and he goes on to explain that “pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves” (Poetics 13.2). Watching a play about the unmerited suffering of a man like myself explodes my egoism because it reminds me just how small and vulnerable men like us are. (It also explodes my egoism by forcing me to think “men like us.”)

The slab at Pok-O-Moonshine offered me a less vicarious, but for that reason all the more tonic, catharsis of “cleansing fear.” I take this phrase from George McDonald (beloved of C. S. Lewis), who said in gratitude to the terrible sea that it granted men “healthful struggle” and “cleansing fear” (The Seaboard Parish [1868]). This cleansing fear is catharsis.

* * * * *

I trust I have said enough for you to see the meaning of a theatrocratic church or a theatrocratic classroom. Such places are popular in the exact sense that the theatron is in charge, and the boob up front is just there to stoke the furnace of its ressentiment. And I trust you can now see the meaning of a cathartic church or classroom, with leaders who instills that cleansing fear.

Indeed, I trust that you can now see the meaning of a theatrocratic or a cathartic culture, the one a culture of darkness, bent on cosseting the egoistic delusions of men in want of wisdom, and the other a culture of light, “bent on seeing things as they are, and thus dissipating delusions” (Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy [1869]).

And I do not suppose it will take you long to decide which of these cultures is ours.

8 thoughts on “Ressentiment or Catharsis?

  1. Pingback: Ressentiment or Catharsis? | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Ressentiment or Catharsis? | Reaction Times

  3. Thank you for this thought-provoking essay. I’m relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one who was into Alan Watts in the late ’70s. Thankfully, I eventually outgrew that phase, but recalling it gives me a glimmer of hope when I see some of my students’ nonsensical ideas.

    • Yes, there is catharsis in seeing our students as men like ourselves who have suffered the misfortune of being seduced by wacky ideas. I expect a lot of us who are now out of the zeitgeist were really in it at one time.

  4. Pingback: My Experience With Stand Up Comedy – Thoughts on Misdirection | Winston Scrooge


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